Bořek Dočkal: The high-profile outsider

Just the delivery itself tells you everything you need: Bořek Dočkal couldn’t be bothered. There stood a man, in front of a video camera that was set up just for him to talk, yet quite blatantly unable to bring himself to care for his own farewell. He thanked the club. He thanked the fans. He thanked his family. He checked all the obligatory boxes. And he meant it all, I’m sure. At the same time, though, Dočkal just sort of couldn’t bear to be the centre of the attention for even a minute longer. At 33, he made for a visibly exhausted man.

Now, I can’t be sure that’s how it really is. Even though Dočkal himself readily admits he retires to take a break from football the sport to perhaps reconnect with it in the future, I’m still mostly just projecting what I think is going on.

It’s no unfamiliar experience for Dočkal.

Surely, he was just mindlessly throwing away what remained of his prime by going after dirty Chinese money at 28. Surely, he was just being greedy by tapping into yet another rich market in the US only a year later. Surely, he can never come back from an Achilles surgery at 30. And another one. Oh, he can? Well, surely, Sparta can never be successful with him because he’s too slow and great teams are never built around slow players something something.

A load of projecting and assumptions, most commonly presented as dogmas.

Some of the scrutiny has been fair enough. Dočkal hasn’t quite made the critics eat their words, and he isn’t special by facing criticism either. A cynic could add Dočkal isn’t even special for saying “fuck it” this early into his 30s. Theo Gebre Selassie, Vladimír Darida and Pavel Kadeřábek have arguably made it too common an experience lately, albeit only on a national team level.

But maybe we shouldn’t think of it as an anomaly. Maybe this is but a latest hint that, hey, you’re not entitled to watch footballers play football — you’re lucky to do, rather. They are not here for you. They are here, primarily, to enjoy themselves. And once that stops, why shouldn’t they quit altogether? You sure have in your day job, school, hobby, whatever — I sure have, as well.

Dočkal said he needs to take a step back to find out what’s truly important for him, and what brings him the most pleasure. Kudos. Go you! Darida had a good enough reason — frustrated by frequent flying amid the pandemic, soon after welcoming his first born. Kadeřábek had a good enough reason, too — finally listening to his body and hopefully postponing a burn out. The timing might not have always been perfect but who are we, ultimately, to say?

Antonín Barák put it the best in a recent iSport podcast: nobody cares about what happens to footballers post-retirement. In fact, we hardly can care — ex-pros needing half a dozen more surgeries to not limp for most of their retirement, needing help to stand up at 40 etc. don’t tend to make headlines.

So if we — as fans, journalists, bloggers — are largely ready to abandon them once they stop running around for our pleasure, why should they be busy defending their own decisions to call it a day like Darida and Kadeřábek were?

Dočkal is a player whom many of us will only come to fully appreciate with the benefit of hindsight. As our league moves even further towards frantic running, there won’t be (m)any Dočkal’s arriving. Those who carefully pick their passes as well as runs will always face what Dočkal has — and then some.

A victim of his own smarts in a way, the blonde midfielder has come to symbolize the terrible schizophrenia of Czech football. He’s been bashed for not being the prototype we seem to crave and universally celebrate on the one hand — a brilliant athlete, a freak of nature, the jack of all trades, master of none type — yet curse on the other hand, too, because the prototype is all the same the very reason why our players are no longer sought after by scouts.

“You’d make our national team more watchable, but also… stay the fuck out.”

Dočkal is an intelligent human being, so he must’ve been aware of walking this exhausting tightrope. He wasn’t running and tackling often enough, yet he was still there to start most counter-attacks and break up plays high up the pitch. Through his first 19 appearances, he was a measly 0+2 and seemingly forgotten, only to wake up to a Deník Sport title page posing a rhetorical question “One more year for the captain?” a month later, all the while getting fed the aggressive GET YOUNGER narrative from the very same paper…

So confusing.

Especially as he wasn’t necessarily doing anything different, or indeed less.

Through those same 19 appearances, he was involved in nine goal moves. I’d argue that’s fine for a veteran. It just so happened seven of those contributions weren’t goals/assists — the only stats that matter, we once arbitrarily decided.

Celebrated as a special difference-maker who doesn’t have a substitute or heir apparent one day, and buried as a washed prima donna the next day, Bořek Dočkal is the ultimate epitome of the reactionary nature of Czech football.

And you know what? Good for him he’s not going to be part of it anymore.



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